Period of Platonist philosophy extending from 1st c. BCE to 3rd c. CE. In that period we witness the development of rival interpretations of Plato’s philosophy, which for the most part are driven by the view that Plato’s philosophy is a system of doctrines.

Reference of the Term "Middle Platonism"

The term ‘Middle Platonism’ is a modern one and has been widely used in modern scholarship, despite the fact that cannot actually speak of Middle Platonism as a unified philosophical current. The term refers to the Platonist philosophy from Antiochus of Ascalon (130- 68 BCE) until the emergence of Plotinus’ philosophy (204-270 CE), which is taken as marking the beginning of ‘Neoplatonism’. During that period a number of Platonist philosophers are active. The majority of them write in Greek, such as Plutarch, but some write also in Latin, such as Apuleius. In reality the distinction between Middle- and Neo- Platonism is a scholarly construction, since Plotinus combines and follows upon tendencies of the antecedent, Middle Platonist, philosophical tradition. We know, for instance, that he relied heavily on Numenius’ philosophy (Porphyry, Life of Plotinus 18.1-8, 21.1-9). Platonists active in that period teach in various places around the Mediterranean, such as in Athens, Rome, Alexandreia, Apameia etc.

Main Figures and Tendencies

The so-called period of Middle Platonism accommodates a variety of tendencies and currents in Platonist philosophy, which are often contradicting or rivaling each other. For that reason we are not justified in considering Middle Platonism a unified philosophical stream but rather the Platonist philosophy of a certain period. There are a number of criteria by means of which we can distinguish tendencies and currents in that period of Platonist philosophy. One of them is how Middle Platonists consider the philosophy of Aristotle. We can distinguish a group of Platonists who tend to consider Aristotle’s philosophy complementary to that of Plato in the sense that the former is useful for the reconstruction and the better understanding of the latter. To this group belong Platonists like Antiochus of Ascalon, Plutarch, Calvenus Taurus, Alcinous, and Apuleius. Despite their differences, these Platonist philosophers appear to converge in the view that Aristotle can assist Platonists in the understanding and interpreting the philosophy of Plato, which constituted the major task of the Platonist philosopher of that age. They hold this to be the case to the extent that Aristotle a) preserves doctrines of Plato on a variety of issues (e.g. regarding the Forms, the cosmogony, pleasure etc); b) because Aristotle quite conspicuously defends views that we also find in Plato, such as the view that virtue comes about when the rational part of the soul prevails over the non-rational one, a view we find both in the Republic and in the Nicomachean Ethics; and c) because some of Aristotle’s doctrines were considered as developments and articulations of Plato’s views, such as the theory of categories, which Platonists like Plutarch and Alcinous traced back in Plato (Plutarch, De animae procreatione in Timaeo 1023E, Alcinous, Didaskalikos 159.43-5, Anonymous, In Theaetetum 68.7-22). For Platonists of this class, Aristotle is not only an important witness of Plato’s doctrines but also a philosopher who, despite his divergences from Plato, followed on Plato’s philosophy and developed it further. At the other side of that tendency we find Platonists who highlighted Aristotle’s criticism of Plato and as a result emphasized their differences, which they considered as marking two distinct schools of philosophy. To this group we should classify Platonists such as Eudorus, Nicostratus, Numenius, and Atticus. The actual difference between these two groups of Platonists lies in their interpretation of aspects of Plato’s philosophy. It is the kind of interpretation of Plato that actually motivates the partial acceptance or the rejection of Aristotle’s philosophy on the part of Platonists.

Another criterion of distinguishing rival tendencies among Platonists of this period is their attitude towards the aporetic aspect of Plato’s philosophy. For Plutarch, for instance, Plato’s philosophy consists in a set of doctrines but this does not mean that it loses its skeptical character (Platonic Questions 1, Against Colotes 1122A-1124B). For the anonymous author of the commentary on Theaetetus (ca. 1st c. CE), however, the aporetic element is the most fundamental one in Plato’s thought. For Antiochus on the other hand the philosophy of mature Plato amounts solely to a set of doctrines, which the Platonist must clarify and interpret, and for that reason he criticizes the skeptical Academy (Cicero, Academica I.16-18, I.46). Similar is the attitude of Numenius, who also criticizes the skeptical Academy as a deviation from Plato’s genuine philosophy, which he takes as being essentially Pythagorean (frs. 24-28 Des Places). The tendency to consider Plato as a Pythagorean is another strong tendency in contemporary Platonism. The revival of interest in the Timaeus is related to a general contemporary revival of Pythagoreanism to the extent that the Timaeus is regarded as drawing on Pythagorean sources (see Diogenes Laertius 8.85). This leads some Platonists to consider Plato as a follower of Pythagoras (e.g. Eudorus, Moderatus, Numenius), some others as an original and innovative thinker (Atticus), while others (e.g. Plutarch) opt for a middle path.

Another issue on the basis of which we can distinguish tendencies among Platonist philosophers of the time is the interpretation of the Timaeus. Some Platonists adopt a more literal interpretation, according to which the world was actually created by the creator-god of the Timaeus (Plutarch, Atticus), while others appear to believe that such an interpretation is not defensible and that the creator-god is only a principle and cause of the world but this does not imply temporal priority but only causal/ontological one (Numenius, Taurus). There are also two other interpretative tendencies arising from the engagement with the Timaeus. The first is the tendency of adopting a dualist model of principles, namely that of the creator-god and of matter (Plutarch), while the second tendency, which is a form of monism, consists in defending the idea that the Form of the Good in the Republic (508e) is ontologically higher than the creator-god, for it is not subject to the limitations of the receptacle, the equivalent of matter, which is often identified with badness, and is indeed the highest principle since it is ultimately good and transcendent (Moderatus, Numenius, Alcinous). Another relevant issue is the role that the Forms play in the coming about of the world. Some Platonists identify the creator-god of the Timaeus with the Forms that he, as an intellect, thinks (Numenius frs. 16, 19 Des Places, Alcinous, Didaskalikos ch. 9), while others distinguish the creator-god from the Forms (Atticus fr. 9 Des Places). The tendency to identify the creator-god with the Forms finds its justification on passages of the Timaeus (37d, 39e), and is embraced by Plotinus, who proposes an entirely monistic system.

Historical significance

Middle Platonism is of great significance for understanding the antagonistic interpretations and tendencies within the Platonist tradition in the period between 1st c. BCE and 3rd c. CE, which lie behind the philosophical synthesis achieved by Plotinus. This period of philosophy coincides with a more general development of philosophy and science that can be attested especially in the 2nd c. CE and with the expansion of Christianity. Middle Platonist philosophers influenced many contemporary philosophers, such as Galen, Alexander of Aphrodisias, Justin, Clement of Alexandria, Origen). This is also a period of strong rivalry among philosophical schools in general and more particularly amongst Platonist philosophers, who quarrel about the more faithful and more defensible interpretation of Plato. This happens since the membership to the Academy, which constituted a criterion of Platonist orthodoxy, had ceased to exist most probably after Antiochus.

Author: George Karamanolis
  • Glucker, J. Antiochus and the Late Academy. Göttingen, 1978.
  • Karamanolis, G. Plato and Aristotle in Agreement? Platonists on Aristotle from Antiochus to Porphyry. Oxford, 2006.
  • Opsomer, J. In Search of the Truth: Academic Tendencies in Middle Platonism. Leuven, 1999.
  • Tarrant, H. "Platonism before Plotinus." Gerson, L.P. ed. Τhe Cambridge History of Philosophy in Late Antiquity I. Cambridge University Press, 2010.
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